Why an Interdisciplinary Investigation?

The last twenty years have yielded great progress in the psychology and neurobiology of the emotions. Antonio Damasio’s groundbreaking studies of patients with lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal brain region provided a foundation, by exhibiting the remarkable pairing of deficits in emotional responses with dramatic deficits in decision-making (Damasio 1994). More recently, the widespread availability of functional neuroimaging has facilitated great progress in psychology and neurobiology of the emotions, particularly in understanding emotions’ role in cognitive processes such as memory, attention, and decision-making, and in mapping out emotional processes that guide social behavior (e.g., Bechara et al. 2000, Rolls 2007).

While love and caring are not explicitly among the concepts around which neuroscientists working on the emotions organize their research, many disorders they study implicate the capacity to love or care in a variety of ways that help to illuminate the roles of love and caring in healthy, non-disordered agency. Patients suffering from addiction systematically ignore what they care about in their addiction-driven decisions, and so mapping out the neural mechanisms of addiction can help us understand precisely how in such cases caring is undermined—and, by contrast, how caring functions in healthy cases of decision-making and motivation. People often describe psychopaths and patients with ventromedial prefrontal brain damage as altogether uncaring or unloving, partly because of their lack of certain emotional and motivational responses, even though their reasoning ability appears fully intact. By contrast, people with Asperger syndrome, despite their deep challenges in understanding their fellow human beings and social interaction, exhibit unmistakably caring behaviors and attitudes. Thus, examining these disorders as a group, at the level of deep and detailed knowledge both of the neurochemical and neuroanatomical mechanisms responsible for emotional experience and of how malfunctions of these mechanisms lead to these disorders of affect and motivation, offers a unique opportunity to probe what caring and love involve—not only in dysfunctional cases, but also in cases of healthy, robust functioning.

The work of legal theorists and thoughtful medical practitioners also bears directly upon the roles that love and caring play in healthy human agency because of the urgent ethical questions with which patients present them. What bearing do disorders of affect that impact patients’ capacity for care have upon their moral responsibility for their actions? What bearing should they have upon their legal responsibility? How do these disorders alter patients’ moral and legal standing, as moral agents whose wishes require respect? How should practitioners conceive treatment goals for these patients? As we note below, these are questions with which, we think, philosophical work on caring and its roles in human agency can help—especially if it is informed by the experience of medical practitioners and legal theorists who actually deal with them. More importantly, we think that reflecting on these questions in the context of cases of dysfunction can help us better to understand the grounds of moral and legal responsibility, and of moral and legal standing, in the case of normal, healthily functioning people, whose capacities for love and caring are intact: if affective dysfunction undermines responsibility and standing, then properly functioning affect must be among the conditions of responsibility and standing. Indeed, we think that reflection on these cases may be indispensable in helping us understand what healthy functioning consists in, and what love and caring contribute to it, given that directly experimenting on healthy individuals to find out what undermines responsibility and moral standing is ethically impermissible.

On the other side, philosophical accounts can also help the scientists design and interpret experiments to test their results. Of course, we, the three Project Leaders, are not scientists and cannot set the scientists’ agenda. However, scientists studying the emotions make assumptions about the nature of rationality and agency, often drawing on orthodox theories of rational choice as preference-satisfaction, and here we anticipate that richer philosophical accounts will enhance the scientists’ understanding of the phenomena they are studying. For example, attempts in neuroscience to understand the neural origins of morality tend to presuppose overly simple models of human agency and rationality, which have no special role for loving or caring beyond what one can characterize in terms of desires and preferences—models philosophical accounts can help to correct. Similarly, psychological and neuroscientific experiments investigating such morally relevant emotions as shame and guilt can inform and be informed by philosophical accounts of these emotions and their ties to what we love and care about. We will provide other, more detailed examples below.

The goal of our project, then, is two-fold: (1) to foster philosophical research on love and caring, and on their roles in human agency, research informed by the best, cutting-edge work in other disciplines, and (2) to foster interdisciplinary dialogue on love and caring, so that philosophical work on the subject can inform work in other disciplines as well.

Next: Why Love and Human Agency?